Naturally, Mycroft played the piano. When one strikes a piano key, one produces exactly the note one intends to. One the other hand, the violin is temperamental, nuanced, elusive. John sat on the George III period camelback sofa, an audience of one, trying to look thoughtful while Sherlock and Mycroft played Paganini’s Cantabile. He could not have imagined that as they played, Mycroft was envisioning a chain: just as Sherlock had the patience and attention to detail to elicit the most charming sounds from his instrument, so John had the patience and attention to detail to elicit the most rewarding behaviour from Sherlock. Mycroft intended to take advantage of this.
It may not have occurred to John that he was here for anything other than a pleasant evening of dinner and music, but Sherlock knew better. When the piece was finished, Mycroft covered the keys, and Sherlock replaced his violin in its case while grumbling, “Now that we’ve dispensed with the stiflingly formal dinner and mildly pleasant family tradition, can we please proceed to the real reason for your invitation?”
Mycroft could see now that Sherlock had not bothered to warn John about a potential “real reason.” John looked to Mycroft, whose smile was frigid but tolerant. “One day, Sherlock, I will invite you to my home with no ulterior motive, no offer of an intriguing case, and no need of your unique abilities. One day, we will have a simple family gathering, which is something I am told ordinary people occasionally enjoy. Of course, it will then fall to you to accept such an invitation.”
Mycroft motioned for Sherlock to have a seat next to John on the sofa. Then he excused himself from the room for a moment, returning with a stack of folders, each stuffed thickly but tidily with documents.
“A former colleague of mine has brought to my attention a mysterious death.” Mycroft sat in a club chair near the sofa and flipped through the folders, searching for the one he wanted to hand over first. “And I don’t use that word lightly; you know that to myself and my colleagues, few deaths are truly ‘mysterious.’ I wish to enlist your aforementioned unique abilities to find the murderer.”
“You are certain it is a murder?”
“Confirming that is the first step, yes,” Mycroft conceded. “Doctor Nigel McDermott was reviewing some autopsy photos that had been taken at a…shall we say, remote base of operations. The body in question was one Jay Von Wahlde, a waste equipment operator. Drove forklifts and loaders and so on. Von Wahlde was on a field trip, something routinely offered to workers at the base, when he fell prey to high-altitude pulmonary oedema. McDermott did not perform the autopsy himself -- he works at the National Science Foundation headquarters in Washington, DC -- but he was reviewing the file and noticed this anomaly.”
Mycroft pulled a photo from a file and handed it to Sherlock, who stared at it, puzzled. “The man has had a tattoo removed,” Sherlock said. “I can see a bit of it still, but not enough to discern what the original design was.”
“There would be few who could, but McDermott is one of them. Twenty years ago, seven men from the First Battalion Parachute regiment were sent to a very sensitive location, as a favour to a very sensitive country that had very sensitive needs.”
Though neither spoke aloud, John and Sherlock each compiled lists in their heads of possible settings for this favour, considering the time period. Gawakadal? Georgia? Nagorno-Karabakh? Panama? Lebanon? It could be three dozen places. Mycroft continued:
“After the engagement, which was a complete success, the seven men commemorated the occasion by getting matching tattoos. The imagery involved did not reveal in any way the nature of their assignment.”
“And one of the tattoos had been removed from this ordinary waste equipment operator,” John said, merely voicing what Sherlock had already supposed.
“Indeed,” said Mycroft. “The face, in these autopsy photographs, does not match the face of any of the seven soldiers. We attributed that to cosmetic surgery, accounted for six of the men, one being McDermott, and so have concluded that the lowly EO must have been the seventh: Paul Royer.” He handed a folder to John. “Here’s his file. Immaculate military record, retired in 2002 to work for Aegis.”
John recognised the name. “Aegis, as in the private security contractor Aegis?”
“Precisely. The Pentagon hired Aegis in 2004 to oversee the reconstruction of Iraq. Over fifty companies either are or were involved in the effort; Aegis was the management hub for all operations, and Paul Royer was the management hub of Aegis.”
John passed Royer’s file to Sherlock, who glanced over each page.
“Royer disappeared quite suddenly ten months ago,” Mycroft continued. “He left no clues to his whereabouts, no messages with loved ones, not a shred of a hint as to why, where, or how. It was assumed that he did this for the same reason a dozen other men of comparable status have disappeared.”
Sherlock looked up from the file. “His commendations say ‘Do what they tell you and do it well,’ but his most recent psych eval says ‘whistle-blower.’”
Mycroft nodded. “Royer witnessed the shoddy execution of shoddy contracts which left much room for corruption. We suspect that Royer intended to bring to light a conspiracy he’d uncovered, by a London-based Egyptian tycoon, to take over Iraq’s mobile phone network. At this point we have mainly conjecture, but if his situation was at all typical, after a string of attempts on his life, Royer decided to fake his own death, change his identity, and go into hiding. When he disappeared earlier this year we told his family he had been eliminated by insurgents, due purely to chance rather than political motivations. We suspected there was more to it, but he did such a good job covering his tracks, he would have been lost to us entirely if he hadn’t gotten himself killed where he did.”
Sherlock’s aloof gaze fell on Mycroft. “And where, precisely, was he killed?”
“McMurdo Station, the American research facility. What I’m asking you to do, Sherlock, is to solve Antarctica’s first murder.”
John frowned. “I understand that MI-5 would want to be involved in this, what with Royer having been a British national,” he said, and looked to Sherlock, then Mycroft, then back, watching their expressions as he spoke and trying to puzzle out why their involvement was imperative. “But since this technically took place in an American territory, won’t the Americans want to maintain their jurisdiction over -- ah, I’ve just said something terribly naïve, haven’t I?”
“We will welcome the Americans’ help, as soon as it is needed,” Mycroft said. “But for the time being, we cannot have any organisation on the ground in McMurdo. What Royer knew, and who he planned to tell it to, is all conjecture. The Egyptian tycoon and the mobile network? A hunch. The key to finding out what’s being planned, who’s involved, and whose interests are being threatened lies in finding out who is responsible for Royer’s death. We’ve got to start with his assassin, find out who paid him, and follow the money until we can determine who had the most to lose if Royer blew their cover.
“And as much as the Americans would delight in sending Navy SEALs to storm McMurdo and use ‘advanced interrogation techniques’ on every boffin and lorry driver in the facility, solving the murder will take slightly more finesse. Right now the assassin must still be at McMurdo. We know this because Royer’s death occurred after the first flight in at the beginning of the summer. My erstwhile colleague happened to see the autopsy photographs shortly thereafter, and since then, all flights out have been delayed, to prevent anyone leaving. The personnel scheduled to leave for Christchurch have been vaguely informed that it’s some sort of logistics foul-up, which they are all too ready to believe, as McMurdo is a notorious bureaucratic nightmare. So long as the assassin thinks he’s gotten away with it, the path of least resistance will be to keep his head down and quietly leave when the season is over.
“But while assassins are often the product of years of special training, ‘wet work’ remains the lowest rung on the intrigue ladder. If Royer’s killer gets an inkling that there is an investigation going on, he most certainly has instructions to take whatever steps are necessary to avoid capture or interrogation. And considering his location and mobility at this time, those steps basically amount to suicide.
“Therefore, the utmost tact will be required to apprehend the assassin. We can’t have the military or ordinary law enforcement trampling all over the base and causing a fuss. The investigation must be conducted in this enclosed space, by the fewest people possible, in utter secrecy. All actions being taken, including your assignment to Antarctica, will be done without the cooperation of any personnel who are physically at McMurdo.”
“And now you’re talking about our being sent there as if we’ve already agreed to it,” Sherlock sneered.
“Sherlock, there is simply no time for you to be obstreperous about this. McMurdo’s fly-in period is almost over. There is only one flight left from Christchurch, and it leaves in forty-two hours. After that, no personnel will be flown in for five months.” Mycroft produced two boarding passes. “You must be on flight 2049 at six-fifteen tomorrow morning, for your flight from Heathrow to Christchurch, with one stop in Singapore.”
John eyed the tickets warily. “I was on board with this idea a minute ago, until I realised that I would have to endure two twelve-hour flights with Sherlock.”
“I am a pragmatist, John, but I am not cruel. Flight 2049 is a private jet, not commercial, which should lessen somewhat the inevitable misery of travelling with my brother. Your five-hour flight to McMurdo, however, will be with the civilian rabble. One must keep up appearances.”
Mycroft looked at John as if to say, Go on, you know how to make him do things.
John thought that going to Antarctica sounded exciting. He imagined himself staggering through blizzards, sleeping rough on a rugged frontier, treating all sorts of novel and gruesome medical conditions in the most hostile environment on Earth, never certain whether, in a month or in an instant, Mother Nature would consume him and his companions in her fury.
He wasn’t sure Sherlock would buy in on those premises, however, so instead he said, “I’ll bet they’re doing all sort of interesting research there. Maybe you’ll have time to look in on it.”
“That’s quite true,” said Mycroft. “Even if the two of you can identify the assassin in the first five minutes, you will be residing at McMurdo for about five months. Transport between fly-in periods is for emergencies only, and, as I have already made clear, you will be ordinary civilians as far as anyone is concerned. So assuming you make quick work of the case, Sherlock, you will have plenty of time for research. You might not be captivated by McMurdo’s astrophysics, geospace, or glaciology programs, but I’ll wager you’ll find what’s going on in their Organisms And Ecosystems program quite interesting. Genomics, adaptation, population dynamics. All of which is, of course, facilitated by the absolute bleeding edge of forensic technology. Not to mention, McMurdo is itself a fascinating study in frontier social control. No one with the least interest in human behaviour would ever be bored there.”
Sherlock clasped his hands under his chin and gazed into the fireplace. The case wasn’t very interesting. A single politically-motivated killing. And Antarctica was probably a dreadfully dull continent. But he could feel the excitement pouring off John, and if it would make him happy…
Mycroft splayed his hands impatiently on the remaining folders in his lap. “I need your decision now, Sherlock.”
“I’ll do it,” Sherlock sighed. “But only because it means I won’t have to spend Christmas with you.”
Mycroft smiled. “I can always count on you to do the right thing…eventually.”
A/N for you nitpickers: There may have been one real-life murder in Antarctica, at the South Pole in May of 2000. But whether the death was an accident, suicide, or murder has not been conclusively proven. Soooooooo I called this “Antarctica’s first murder” to be dramatic.